Who has the right to interpret the past?

Museums are accountable to their communities: therefore, they have a duty to interpret the past in a way that educates, engages, and stimulates the public. Furthermore, museums should challenge visitors to grapple with inconvenient and dark subject matter on occasion. But what if visitors do not want to confront the skeletons in their community’s closet? What if segments of the community feel as if their viewpoints are not represented in an exhibit? What if people dislike or disagree with an exhibit’s message?

The museum’s obligation to its community is the primary source of the controversy it might face. Often, museum professionals and community members disagree on this fundamental question: who has the right to interpret the past? The controversy over Gaelic Gotham: A History of the Irish in New York at the Museum of the City of New York was more complex, but it stemmed from a belief among parts of the Irish community that their history was being interpreted for them; certain groups felt they did not have a say in the development of an exhibition about their history.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) might face different, but related, kinds of controversy when it opens its doors. Many Americans expect a warm, fuzzy retelling of their past when they visit a museum, and some visitors might feel uncomfortable tackling important issues such as slavery, violence, and racism. Also, different people have certain ideas of how the African-American story should be presented. If the museum’s presentation differs from these visitors’ expectations, these visitors might react negatively.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with the NMAAHC’s executive director, Dr. Lonnie Bunch, on the subject of controversy in museums. He expects that some sort of controversy will arise at the NMAAHC. Yet he is implementing strategies to preemptively strike seeds of contention. As one strategy, the museum has done extensive public engagement and audience research to identify what the public wants. The museum will also consider what the public needs (this blogger guesses that the public needs an engaging, thoughtfully presented scholarship that captures the continuum from tribulation to triumph in African-American history). Dr. Bunch’s consideration and application of the dynamic tension between public wants and public needs reinforce his answer to the age-old question of who may interpret the past: a museum’s interpretation is shaped by scholarship and honed by public engagement.

Museum professionals can take precautions to avoid controversy by meeting with community groups; getting feedback from scholars; garnering support from leaders, board members, and the media; and making clear to stakeholders the line between audience research and selecting voices for the exhibition’s presentation. Nevertheless, controversy can arise over unexpected issues. But that’s all right. Controversy in cultural institutions tells us that we live in a dynamic, open society (Dubin 275).


For this post I used:

Steven C. Dubin. Displays of Power: Controversy in the American Museum from the Enola Gay to Sensation! New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Lonnie G. Bunch III. Call the Lost Dream Back: Essays on History, Race and Museums. Washington, DC: The AAM Press, 2010.


With special thanks to Dr. Lonnie Bunch, executive director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture



About abcohen12

I'm a second-year museum studies graduate student at the Cooperstown Graduate Program
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